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Take 5: Tips to sharpen your writing skills

No matter what you study, good writing skills will help you achieve success in both the classroom and the workplace. Here are five tips to help you write your next essay, cover letter, or office-wide email.

Be clear, concise, and coherent

Good writing is clear, concise, and coherent, says Neal Lerner, associate professor of English and director of the Writing Program at Northeastern University. “Express your ideas clearly, in as few words as possible,” he says. “And make sure to guide your reader along, whether it’s from sentence to sentence or idea to idea.”

Read, read, read

According to Lerner, a good writer is a good reader. “One of the great benefits of reading is exposure to different styles of writing,” he says. “If nothing else, it will help you see how other authors tackle problems.”

Read fiction and non-fiction, he says, novels and biographies, virtually anything you can get your hands on. “Read widely,” he advises. “Writers need to be open to different kinds of influences and exposures.”

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Neal Lerner advises writers to be voracious readers.

Read aloud

Lerner is a big believer in reading his writing aloud. “It’s a great editing technique,” he explains. “There are things your eye will miss that your voice and ear won’t.” Pay particular attention to sentences that “don’t roll off your tongue,” he says, and be sure to edit those out.

Create a comfortable writing environment

Lerner likes to write in coffee shops, with a little background ambiance, but other writers require total silence. He suggests that you keep a dedicated writing space, away from your kitchen, dining room, or living room, where you could get easily distracted. As he puts it, “A neutral writing space is really important if you intend to get any writing done.”

Once you’ve found your writing space, schedule a dedicated block of time each day to do nothing but write. “Make a commitment to getting writing done during that time,” he says, “and be protective of that time.”

Study the craft

To hone your writing skills even further, Lerner suggests picking up Tracy Kidder’s Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. “Goldberg’s book really focuses on tapping into your creativity,” he says. “If you’re not sure what to do, she gives you an exercise to expand your mind.”

Other popular guides include Stephen King’s On Writing, E.B. White and William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style, and Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.